Mark Zuckerberg means well. Or at least the billionaire says he does in a recent blog post about net neutrality and the Facebook-backed initiative Internet.org. Long story short, publishers in India are pulling their content from the Internet.org app over apparent net neutrality violations, and well, Zuck’s reaction is pretty much: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. The Indian publishers have a point. If an app is designed to provide specific internet services for free, as the Internet.org app does, then it necessarily provides those services with preferential treatment. Put differently, some companies get special access to certain people, while others are left out. That violates the principles of net neutrality, plain and simple. The Times of India said in a statement, “We support net neutrality because it creates a fair, level playing field for all companies—big and small—to produce the best service and offer it to consumers.”
But wait, isn’t the whole point of Internet.org to empower people with free access to online services? That sounds like a good thing, and it is. But the fact remains that treating some content on the internet differently than other content is not the way to promote a free and open internet. Zuck says so himself in his blog post:
Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use:
Net neutrality ensures network operators don’t discriminate by limiting access to services you want to use. It’s an essential part of the open internet, and we are fully committed to it.
Are they? The Internet.org app inherently limits access by offering users only offering users access select services. Even if the organization wanted to offer free access to everything, it couldn’t. As Zuck himself said in a comment on his post:
It’s too expensive to make the whole internet free. Mobile operators spend tens of billions of dollars to support all of internet traffic. If it was all free they’d go out of business.
There’s the rub. Empowering people with free internet access is a great and noble goal, however, providing them with limited access defies the idea of a free and open internet. As Mat Honan wrote last year, “[Internet.org] establishes an internet for poor people.” That sounds bad.
This doesn’t mean that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and the good intentions of Internet.org are misplaced. Perhaps universal access and net neutrality will never be compatible. As Wired’s Issie Lapowsky elucidates, Zuck “makes it clear that he believes the positives of giving people even limited free access to the internet outweigh the concern about playing favorites, when the alternative is no access at all.” That’s a tough truth, but it’s the truth. No matter how much Zuck tries to talk about how the Internet.org app is free of fast lanes and blocking and throttling, it still fails the preferential treatment test.
Mark Zuckerberg means well, and he obviously likes idea net neutrality. He’s just not very good at it.
Correction (05.07.2015): A concerned reader has correctly informed us that Internet.org doesn’t actually have nonprofit status. It is an “initiative” led by the very for-profit company Facebook. This post has been updated to reflect this important truth. Also, this is a good column from Wired’s Josh Levy explaining how Internet.org isn’t really the internet but rather a troubling thing he calls the Facebooknet.
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